I woke up this morning at six with the devil's own sinus problems--as much as I love this chocolate box varietal of weather (not), it's been playing havoc with my poor little bird-like beak! I called out of work, slept late, and now am shuffling around the house in my pajamas and a housecoat, like a mildly more glamorous version of that old woman on the Kleenex boxes and greeting cards...Maxine? At any rate, I needed some cheering up, and would you know, it came in the form of something I could even blog about! Pass me the Dayquil and let's talk shop.
Folks, meet Lizzie Miles.
|I want to wear these clothes. And sing these songs.|
I watched Blue Jasmine a couple weeks ago, and have to say I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I thought I would. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Woody Allen fan, rank him in my top five directors of all time, and have sat in tears in the middle of more than one of his pictures, even the tenth time I've seen it-- but this one was just not it. It was well-made, well acted...but it felt so F-L-A-T. Where's the sparkling dialogue and deep human drama? While the ending monologue is delivered beautifully, disturbingly by Cate Blanchett, I really couldn't understand what was going on with the movie besides a strange homage to Streetcar Named Desire. Couldn't feel either the necessary pity or scorn for Blanchett's duBois-esque character to be committed to the movie. Luckily, he's averaged about a movie a year for the last thirty, so hopefully the former Allan Konigsberg will dream up something I love next year. The best parts of the film, in my opinion, were Cate Blanchett's Chanel jacket (a kind of two thousand dollar armor, holding in what was left of what she thought she was) and the choice of Lizzie Mile's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" for the ending credits.
There's more spirit in this three minute recording than in the whole. rest. of. the movie. Call me a philistine, I felt like jumping off the couch and cheering about halfway through the track, more energized than any of the exchanges between sister and sister left me. Breathless, flirty, emphatic French punctuates the chorus, and the chanteuse does vocal runs as expressive as anything the red hot New Orleans jazz band is doing in the background. My favorite kind of music, truth told, is the torch song genre. Where people sound like they might actually die of whatever lasting heartache is compelling them to take the stage to let it all pour out. And doesn't the ragged melodious timbre of Lizzie Miles's singing just fit. the. BILL. in that regard. As vieux carré as red beans and rice, she's a singer from the old tradition of New Orleans jazz women. Naturally, I took to the internet to find out more about the woman whose voice I immediately fell in love with.
|Seriously, where do I get these clothes?|
Lizzie Miles was born Elizabeth Landreaux in 1895. Her parents were long-time New Orleanians who spoke French and Creole, and as a child, Lizzie lived down the street from a classmate who would become a jazz legend himself, saxman Sidney Bechet (another Woody Allen favorite). Miles began singing professionally around twelve, counting Sophie Tucker among her influences. She took to the road three years later, working in a minstrel act in a circus alongside her first husband, band leader J.C. Miles. A reviewer wrote at the time of one show, "Yelling can be constantly heard [in the crowd], 'Give us more of your Memphis blues!' Mrs. J.C. Miles is the only one of her sex in the company. She sings her favorite song, 'Goodbye, My Own Dear Heart' and sells copies like hotcakes."Miles's husband died of influenza, which almost carried off Lizzie herself, in 1918; she recuperated and regrouped at home in Louisiana before moving to New York in 1921 to continue with her singing.
Lizzie Miles's post-circus career included engagements singing with King Oliver, with co-leader Kid Ory, and a young Louis Armstrong and future wife Lil Hardin in the same band!! As I just actually let my mouth fall open. She toured France for a year in 1922, played with Fats Waller when she returned stateside, and hooked up with stride-piano legend Willie "The Lion" Smith. A just-starting-out Duke Ellington played lunchtime sets before the Smith band, and Lizzie says in this rememberance taken from her correspondence with a jazz historian, "I sure didn't like Duke Ellington's playing...he couldn't send me like Willie [Smith] or Reynolds [who played piano in Charlie Taylor's Southernaires, her favorite backing band]." Bust my buttons! Who doesn't like Duke Ellington?! Lizzie Miles, apparently! I love the idea of being a contemporary, working artist among some of these legends, and being able to have a professional opinion about people I would just take for granted as being as iconic as they come. To each their own, I guess!
Lizzie retired briefly from singing in the thirties' due to an illness-- she returned to recording in 1939, but the waning popularity of hot New Orleans jazz at the end of the decade translated into not many sales for the performer. In the early fifties', however, the genre enjoyed a renaissance and Lizzie herself worked steadily until 1959, clocking her last major performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Thereafter she sang gospel and devoted herself to a devoutly religious existence until her death in 1963, at the age of sixty-eight. I've pieced most of this biographical information from book excerpts on Google Books... you can explore some of the sources yourself via this link.
|AGAIN WITH THE CLOTHES. Look how "real gone" she looks in the midst of the song|
Back to the singing, though.
I've listened to a couple other recordings of hers now, and they all carry a signature style that makes me just want to listen to more. The hurriedness with which she runs through some of the lyrics, as if someone was about to rush her off the stage, as if she just couldn't wait to get to the end of a phrase, has the immediacy of a really beautiful jazz instrumental riff, and it just gets me EVERY. TIME. Her interpretation of some of the melodies of these songs are just as standalone as a really beautiful trumpet solo...so full of life! This is the same kind of twenties' music blues great Bessie Smith sang (who sang the definitive, but quite different, version of " A Good Man is Hard To Find") but the coquette-ish, big mama-ness of Lizzie's voice is something in its own category. She really knows how to "vamp" a chorus the same as a piano man would add his own little touches and trills to a melody. I. LOVE THIS. With the different attitude the early twenty first century has towards live music (musicians don't seem to "gig" or play residencies, house band engagements, etc as they did in the twentieth-century, when people went to supper clubs and night clubs to dance and listen to music), I think it would be hard to come up with someone who sings from experience like this. She's an amazing singer because she has been literally doing it, every single night, sink or swim in front of the public, for decades. Today, who besides your major established pop acts, who play hundreds of tour dates yearly, can say that they've had that kind of "chops" building experience?
Owing to this modern age we live in, I don't have to depend on a first rate, scholarly music library to have access to exploring more about Lizzie Miles-- Spotify has us covered with a ton of her recordings just waiting to be streamed by me, you, and whoever else should take an interest in this "matron saint", as one article had it, of New Orleans jazz singing. I can't get the embed link to work, but just look her up, it should appear in your Spotify app like this (minus the bikini side bar ads and the club music they keep advertising in between my songs...people! I am not interested! You are barking up the wrong tree!):
I have worn my silly self out talking about Miss Miles; now it's your turn! What do you think of "A Good Man is Hard to Find"? Were you a fan of the Blue Jasmine movie itself? What is it about this kind of old time jazz that appeals to you? Let's talk!
I'm gonna go lay my weary bones down, but I'll be back tomorrow, Lord willing! Have a great Wednesday. Til then.